Often described as one of the most critical tools for social and political change, empathy is more than just a fluffy concept to nurture the understanding of other people. But what exactly does it mean? The term empathy comes from the Greek term empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēsemotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion, and its first known use was in 1850. [1] Moreover, it is defined as “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it”, and “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” [2]

Empathy is a crucial skill to develop a just understanding of all social spheres of society and why people that are different from yourself – be it culture, class, lifestyle, looks or age – behave the way they do. If we are unable to step out of our own worlds into somebody else’s shoes, it is impossible to develop an understanding for each other and enter an empathic dialogue. E.g.: Why does the greedy banker want more money? Why is this smelly homeless guy drinking so much? Why do the Chinese burn so much coal? Why do these old people always judge the young ones? Why don’t these young kids have any respect? The inability to understand each other’s motivations and actions may lead to anger, war, aggression, repulsion, jugdement and stereotypes – most certainly leaving out any space for solidarity, dialogue, cooperation and collaboration.

In a presentation at the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), cultural historian and author of ‘Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live’ Roman Krznaric discusses how empathy can not only enrich one’s own life but also support social change. Here the video link (19:11 min., really worth the watch!):

The six habits mentioned in the video are the following, which could possibly lead to a revolution of human relationships:
1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
2. Challenge prejudices and discover communalities
3. Get into extreme sports (as in exposing yourself to extreme situations)
4. Practice the art of conversation (dialogically)
5. Inspire mass action and social change
6. Develop an ambitious imagination

The RSA Animate series (an innovative, accessible and unique way of illustrating and sharing the world-changing ideas from the RSA’s free public events programme) provides more food for thought on this topic in this animated video, “The Empathic Civilization” (10:40 min) in which ‘author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet’ Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and how it has shaped our development and our society:

More inspiring videos from the RSA Animate series can be found here. Enjoy!

KM, 4.11.2012.

[1]empathy. Merriam-Webster.com. An Encyclopedia Britannica Company. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy (accessed: November 4, 2012).
[2] Ibid.

Image source: Rifkin,J.: “The Empathic Civilization” (2010), RSA Animate Video still (at 6:21 min). http://www.thersa.org/events/rsaanimate/animate/rsa-animate-the-empathic-civilisation  (accessed and screenshot: November 4, 2012).


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